One of the most common descriptions applied to the works of H.P. Lovecraft—especially by those seeking to refute the claim he was recounting ancient secrets—is that the magic is advanced science, that the gods are only powerful aliens. However, Herbert West: Reanimator shows, something survives death so the Mythos has some species of afterlife. Ironically, perhaps one closer to Eastern mysticism than the Protestantism so often labelled one of the pillars of the Lovecraftian “hero”.
Perhaps the most explicit reference to an afterlife in Lovecraft’s work is to Cthulhu who is “dead but dreaming”. This state has two prominent features: consciousness existing during death and resurrection in the same body.
However deluded one considers the cults to be about receiving messages from their “god”, Lovecraft states that artists and other sensitive minds are affected by Cthulhu’s approaching return: the similarity of images in the dreams of unconnected people rules out this being merely the result of some growing “charge”, requiring a common origin; Cthulhu’s consciousness continues during death in some sense that is tangible enough to influence people.
When Cthulhu does return, he is not reborn (as the false prophet Lumley suggests) but rises from his tomb in the same body.
This pattern appears more subtly in The Case of Charles Dexter Ward: Joseph Curwen dies, during the following centuries his will influences his descendants, and he returns to life in a rebuilt version of his original body.
The Case of Charles Dexter Ward also showcases another aspect of the afterlife: resurrection it is a result of personal will not morality. Both Curwen’s resurrection of persons from the past to question and West’s revivification of the dead show something remains that can be drawn back, but that return is the result of a specific action and not something open to all.
In the Orme letter that Ward finds:
“This Uerse repeate eache Roodemas and Hallow’s Eue; and ye Thing will breede in ye Outside Spheres. …and if yr Line runn out not, one shall bee in yeares to come that shal looke backe and use what Saltes or Stuff for Saltes you shal leaue him. Job XIV. XIV.“
While the spell isn’t a guarantee that Curwen’s line will survive, if it does it will produce someone designed to bring Curwen back, i.e. it influences Curwen’s descendants—either unconsciously or biologically—to “breed true”.
Later, when Dr Willet confronts Curwen:
“I know how you wove the spell that brooded outside the years and fastened on your double and descendant; I know how you drew him into the past and got him to raise you up from your detestable grave;…“
Lovecraft’s chosen viewpoint on the mystery (and thus the closest we have to Lovecraft’s explicit statement of his opinion) describes Curwen’s casting of the spell in active not passive terms: i.e. it was Curwen’s decision and action, his will, that caused this situation. Ward is also Curwen’s double, a much stronger suggestion of the spell shaping the line of his descendants than if it merely caused a single person to decide to bring Curwen back.
Thus, there is a thread of reincarnation in Lovecraft: not the resurrection into eternal life of Abrahamic faith or the externally defined cosmic wheel of Aryan philosophies, but a self-willed reincarnation into a restored version of one’s original body. The eminence of will can be seen in the respective survival of the resurrected after their return: Ward’s creations shamble in the imperfect bodies they return to, susceptible to further damage; Curwen is returned to salts by the focus will of Dr. Willet; but Cthulhu, a being an order of magnitude above humans, is merely dissipated by ‘The Alert’ and begins to reform almost instantly.
So, the Lovecraftian afterlife would seem to be dependent on the person’s will: most beings probably fade into eternal inaction almost immediately after death; but those with enough will can cling on psychically, influencing the material realm toward recreating a vessel for them to reincarnate into.
Some might see a parallel with Ancient Egypt, where performance of death rituals guaranteed what adherence to ethics did not; that of course, was an afterlife identical to this one rather than a rebirth. But then did Lovecraft not write that Nyarlathotep (perhaps a creature with the strongest will of all) came out of Egypt?